The promise of virtual reality has been around for more than a quarter-of-a-century – and, at several points, this technology seemed on the brink of breakthrough. But it is only with Oculus Rift and its rivals that VR has reached a threshold at which it delivers a reasonably realistic experience of imaginary worlds.
It feels incredibly, out-of-bodily real to consumers, and this visceral immersion has made the difference that has caused investment to rush in. Although current VR adopters are mostly gamers, Gartner says VR is ready for the mass market and predicts that more than 25 million units will have been sold by 2018.
This represents a fantastic opportunity for creative marketers, as VR invites consumers to immerse themselves into a made-up world that looks as real as the physical one. The philosophy of the big players is to treat it as "a medium, not a peripheral". And the medium’s capacity to tell powerful stories and let people see reality afresh is one of its biggest promises for brands. These are the kinds of brand encounters people would be willing to actively seek out because they deliver an experience previously economically unattainable or only imaginable in dreams.
As VR lets people almost "physically" experience being in someone else’s shoes, it taps into the subconscious and emotions, making it easier to change perceptions and behaviour. Applications are obvious for automotive, entertainment and sports brands but less immediately apparent for sectors such as FMCG. Creatives will need to rethink how stories are told in order to keep the participating consumer at the centre of the action.
VR's capacity to tell powerful stories and let people see reality afresh is one of its biggest promises
Alongside VR’s potential for marketers comes the tough challenge of how to appropriately evaluate branded VR efforts in the marketing mix. Any such endeavour needs to recognise the active role played by consumers in choosing and consuming experiences, the multidimensional nature of the medium and the advantages that may arise from VR for the brand relationship.
Augmented reality has proved to be a highly engaging medium, delivering far more than alternative channels as long as "traditional" best practice (such as meaningful objectives and a clear brief) is mapped against its unique properties. With its informational qualities, intuitive engagement, interactivity and capacity to offer additional value, AR seems to have found a niche in categories such as engineering, retailing and automotive – particularly in product testing.
The next generations of both VR and AR will offer even more opportunities, but consumer insight must remain at the heart of decision-making. Creatives are right to be excited by innovations but we need to be sure the technology is more than just cool.
Katja Vukcevic is the tech specialist at Simpson Carpenter